What If You Don’t Have to Make ‘Good’ Beer Anymore?

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Earlier this month, Brian Grossman, the son of Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken, and a leader at one of America’s pioneering breweries, said something that may raise an eyebrow.

“We all know it’s a dying art,” he opined at the act of brewing, a curious statement captured by Good Beer Hunting’s Dave Eisenberg.

In some ways, one could argue brewing and many other acts of production have been on life support for centuries during humanity’s slow march forward with machinery and automation. Our innovation and ingenuity has dwindled romanticized approaches we hold dear, as “artisans” shift from laborious hands on work to efforts that require more button pushing than muscle straining.

But art doesn’t “die,” it merely evolves with the times. The same can be said about brewing. Just because computers can do more work in the process of creating a fermented beverage doesn’t mean human beings are suffering from a lack of creativity. It’s likely to be a successful argument that rather than dying, brewing has never been more alive.

So perhaps the issue Brian Grossman brings up isn’t a life-or-death scenario. Rather, it’s a worried thought about what it means to be associated with the “craft” of brewing and the quality of what comes from it.

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How to Win ‘Best’ Beer and Influence People

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Along with all the data parsed from my recent analysis of 2016’s best beer, there was one particular trend that caught my eye.

Beyond the use of specific hops and the never-ending stronghold IPAs have on our collective consciousness, more than ever before, I noticed that some of the beers deemed “best” by amateurs and experts alike were also products I would never get to try, let alone see with my own eyes in real life.

This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. With the sheer number of breweries increasing, let alone focusing on local markets, unobtainable beers should be happening more often.
  2. As more breweries grow and diversify, the potential to include barrel programs and make beers unique to each business also goes up.

But those aspects may not tell the full story. Of the 155 beers I collected for my 2016 best beer analysis, 75 (by my own subjective review) would likely be classified as “rare” for the sake of release and quantity, and an additional 20 would be “rare” based on the need to travel to the brewery or an area directly nearby to actually get the beer. By my own account, 61% of the “best” new beers released in 2016 and included on my collective list aren’t going to be available to nearly all beer drinkers – even card-carrying beer geeks such as myself that might try harder to find certain brands.

Which made me wonder. First, what are rare beers doing to us? Second, is this a paradigm shift that will continue to influence our expectations going forward?

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Addressing Diversity in Beer: Seeking Action

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Note: This is a follow up to my Q&A with the Brewers Association’s Julia Herz.

Over the weekend, I listened to the latest Good Beer Hunting podcast with members of Indianapolis’ Central State Brewing. Among the variety of topics covered by host Michael Kiser was a lengthy discussion of the business’ commitment to social issues of equality and diversity. The Central State crew spoke with earnest about their interest in LGBT issues and Indiana’s political climate.

On Tuesday, I saw a brewery with a beer named “Date Grape.”

This contrast is not just the push-pull of today’s beer industry, but American culture as well. It’s easy to find wonderful examples of people, businesses and institutions doing what’s right for the advancement of human beings. Then you turn around and that 180 feels like more than a metaphor when you see downright ignorant acts.

The inappropriate beer name wound up being a sad mistake by Mobcraft, a crowd-sourced brewery that neglected to vet the names of beers submitted by fans, something that will now be corrected. Whoever the person may be who shared it was sadly “inspired” to make an ingredient-based pun out of “date rape.”

Even though the correction is welcomed, the incident still speaks to the larger problem of sexism and inclusion that hovers over the beer industry and beyond. The sheer fact that someone thought they were being smart and clever with such a wildly inappropriate name says a lot.

Then again, we are only 14 years separated from the “Sex for Sam” contest, which either seems like a lifetime ago or eerily relatable when we navel-gaze at the communities around us and what efforts in equality continue take place, in beer or otherwise.

There are real, tangible things happening on a regular basis that subvert what so many in beer try to champion: diversity and inclusion. In turn, we should start requesting real, tangible actions.

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Will Legal Marijuana Impact Beer Sales?

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“Beer is art”

It’s something you’ve likely heard at some point in time. If you’re like me, there’s even a good chance that sipping on an otherworldly creation from malt and hops has made you feel that way.

But beer is also just beer.

Sometimes, it’s something to be savored. Sometimes, it’s the means to a relaxed end. In that regard, it’s only one of many ways to catch a buzz. For some states, however, the threat of what wine and spirits steal from beer may also be padded by legalized marijuana.

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What’s a Cosponsor Worth? A Counterpoint on Beer Tax Reform

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On Sept. 26, the Brewers Association announced that one of their major governmental priorities, the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, had hit a milestone. More than half of the US Senate had signed on to cosponsor the bill, which aims to reduce federal taxes on beer production, among other provisions.

In recent days, the coverage of the now 51 out of 100 senators signing on has tried to signal that the new number of cosponsors meant good things for the bill.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a quick look at where things actually stand.

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New England IPA and Creating Beer Culture

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The more I read and write about the beer industry, the stronger I feel that American beer culture should often be seen through hop-tinted glasses. The IPA, a defining American style, is “almost like an adjective for American brewing,” as recently pointed out by Jeff Alworth.

Everywhere you turn, IPA is having some sort of impact on consumer buying decisions, brewery production choices and the fate of some of our beloved, heritage brands. Jeff and I are on the same wavelength: hops have done incredible things for the American beer industry and through this prism, evolution and innovation continues to happen. American ingenuity pairs well with America’s favorite craft beer.

Which is all part of the reason why I’ve been watching with great interest the most recent development of the Northeast/New England IPA. There have been many stages of growth from when Sierra Nevada and Russian River started the modern hop-forward movement to today, bringing us from bitingly bitter, malt-balanced, fruity and cloudy IPAs. But what we see now with the NE IPA is a giant venn diagram converging. Aspects of our brewing culture are coming together, showing maturation of the industry and its drinkers.

The NE IPA isn’t just a trend. It’s a part of the broader cultural implications of beer.

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This Is My Definitive and Only Post About Putting Beer in Cans

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Everyone is talking about cans. For years – really, years – writers covering the beer industry have written stories on a near monthly basis about this “hot, new trend” in craft beer: breweries putting beer into cans.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves and it shows no signs of stopping. I recognize that part of it, as Norman Miller points out, is that the very average person (Elderly? WAKA WAKA.) may still be curious about cans and not understand why companies use cans.

OK.

From my biased, curmudgeon, Old Man Yells At Cloud point of view, it’s time to move beyond stories highlighting when a brewery puts liquid into a can. This is not innovative, this is not new and after several years of this happening within the space of craft beer, it is no longer a trend. It is a norm. According to tracking by the Brewers Association, about 2 percent of craft beer volume was going into cans in 2011. It was up to 10 percent in 2014, an increase of about 2 million barrels of beer.

I don’t have specific numbers beyond that, but I imagine your anecdotal experience aligns with mine and we can safely assume the percentage is much higher halfway through 2016. According to craftcans.com, 550 different breweries can 2,162 beers today.

Putting craft beer into a can is no longer a news story. It’s a press release.

So what the hell is there to actually write about cans? Beats the hell out of me, but guess I’ll try.

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The Myths We Tell

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We love drama. We love emotion. We love stories.

Hardwired into our sociology, humans are drawn to the narrative arcs we create to highlight the challenges and successes – real or make believe. Storytelling is part of who we are:

…human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

But how those stories are constructed is just as important as why they’re being told.

As the beer industry has matured in recent years and businesses work to separate themselves from each other, crafting a story and message that runs through an overall brand has become almost as important as crafting a good beer. People want something to connect to beyond their pint glass.

Through this same effort, however, those in the beer community have created broader stories that extend past individual businesses into the ethos of what beer – or, often, “craft beer” – is supposed to be about. Mostly, it creates a perpetual “us vs. them” scenario discussed among beer lovers who shower praise on The Small Guys, hate on The Big Boys and show anger or indifference to those caught in between.

Certainly, there are many facets to the political and business side of the industry that rightfully rile people up. But when we home in on these topics and put our blinders on, there are stories we have so easily accepted we fail to see the partial fallacy of a “black and white” scenario.

There is plenty of gray to go around.

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Liking Sam Adams’ Beer is Now a Political Act

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“No thanks, I like my IPAs good…”

It was a comment left by my brother (mostly serious, partially in jest) on a recent photo I posted on Instagram showcasing Sam Adams’ Rebel Raw IPA. He gives me crap (jokingly) about my affinity for breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, but he also lives in something of a beer Mecca in Seattle, Washington.

But he wasn’t the only one to tease, as I got some pushback on Facebook, too.

And there was this on Reddit:

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I know the conversation based around the question “is Sam Adams ‘craft'” gets people all kinds of wound up, but more than ever, the assertion that Boston Beer’s flagship brands should even be relevant just feels a bit too much. Even if it’s an argument spurred by beer lovers deep in the trenches of nerdom, having to justify an appreciation for one of the iconic breweries in the country makes the situation just a little too … political.

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What *Should* the Brewers Association Do to Address Gender and Race?

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Note: I encourage you to revisit this discussion, picked up in December.

To many, the beer community is an accepting one. Despite an industry crowded by demographics skewed white and male, it still advocates to bring everyone into the fold, no matter race, ethnicity or gender identity.

But we have a problem.

As individual businesses and members of the community work to police sexist or racist actions, one of the most important organizations to help guide this collective effort has, for the most part, stood quiet. Recent questions posed to leadership of the Brewers Association about how the group looks to tackle issues of gender and race were met with somewhat uninspired responses. But I understand.

The Brewers Association, representing thousands of small and independent brewers across the country, has a lot on their plate, from governmental affairs, advising in times of multinational mergers and more. As Julia Herz pointed out in our conversation, it’s a matter of “pecking order.”

However, given the frequency of discussions around sexism and, to a lesser extent, race, it also seems like a time when leadership would be valuable in these areas. As the industry and people within the community continue to diversify, we can’t be left with today’s status quo. The Brewers Association has the means and position to lead and it should.

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